book review, historical fiction

Review: Fled by Meg Keneally

Based on the historical figure Mary Bryant, Fled by Meg Keneally follows the extraordinary journey of late 18th century Jenny from Cornwall to The Sydney Cove Penal Colony and all the raging seas and lives that could have been in between.
When Jenny’s fisherman/smuggler father dies, Jenny must find work to help support her mother and sister. But Jenny soon learns that there is far easier money to be made from highway robbery than through traditional service as a maid or tavern cook. Quite by accident, Jenny stumbles into this dark world and quickly excels in it. Although thieving items to sell, Jenny sticks to a moral code. She doesn’t rob anyone who looks like they are poor or hungry or too young or too old. She is a Robin Hood of sorts in the things she steals and who from. But there is no honor among thieves, and Jenny is soon in over her head.
Here begins Jenny’s extraordinary, epic, and global journey. Many working people in the 18th century barely left their parish. Jenny, on the other hand, although not by choice and in a harsh way, experiences many different places, ports, oceans, and people of varying backgrounds. Even from a young age, Jenny is a survivor. Being working class has prepared her for a harsh life, and thus she has the fortitude to endure the one year (about) journey to the Sydney Cove Australian Penal Colony–one the first round of ships, no less, and starving in a dark and vile hold. Both the convicts and the military accompanying them must carve out some semblance of civilization from the wild and exotic wilderness. Despite the military presence, the colony is lawless. Women are regularly assaulted, including Jenny (although she somewhat consents in exchange for food) on the crossing to the colony which results in the birth of her daughter Charlotte. As a survivor, Jenny is a shrewd study of not only social structure, but also the sea. She allies herself with Cornish fisherman Dan Gwyn, where they enter both into a marriage (of sorts) and a partnership to fish for the colony which brings with it as much prestige and political maneuvering as the colony can provide.
What I loved about Fled is that Keneally does not sugar coat anything. Jenny is not some beautiful and pure ingénue. She is a realist, and will do whatever is necessary to ensure the survival of herself and her family. Jenny is lice-ridden, has rotting teeth, wears tattered clothing, and is starved, yet she works with what she has–a sharp mind for plotting her future moves and how each move with eventually bring her closer to freedom. While she doesn’t exactly have a romantic relationship with her husband Dan Gwyn, she recognizes the value he has as both protector and provider; as a means to an end to escape the colony. Jenny has no time for romance and frivolity. Her life revolves around survival; and thus she most likely relies on a pure instinct which exhibits the strength of her character, making her believably ahead of her time.
It’s hard to imagine travelling the globe in the 18th century, and harder still to imagine a young working class girl doing it. What’s more, how unbelievable it was that she, her family, and a few other convicts escaped the colony in a cutter and effectively braved the storms of the Pacific to reach Timor. But it is believable, because Jenny’s historical counterpart Mary Bryant did just that.

Grade: A+

Fled will be released in the US on July 9th, 2019 and is already available in the UK and Australia